Bring­ing fine food to the masses

The ground floor of Google’s down­town of­fice is now T.O.’s hottest food hall

Annex Post - - FOOD - by Ben Ka­plan

“Are you look­ing to be healthy or in­dul­gent?” asks An­dreas An­to­niou, a se­cond-gen­er­a­tion Toronto food in­no­va­tor, as we tour his new, fully li­censed 24,000-square-foot food em­po­rium, As­sem­bly Chef’s Hall.

“Ev­ery­thing’s pos­si­ble. That’s the kind of pro­gram we built, and that’s the one-of-akind pro­gram Toron­to­ni­ans de­serve. For me, all that mat­ters is food.”

The of­fer­ings, cre­ated by 17 of the city’s best chefs — some known, some un­known — are like a food court in heaven if God was into fried chicken, sushi and bar­be­cued ribs. Fea­tur­ing chefs like Vit­to­rio Co­lacitti (the Good Son), Nick Liu (DaiLo) and Ivana Raca (Uf­fi­cio) part­nered with Chopped Canada’s Brad Smith, this one-stop shop at 111 Rich­mond St. W. is meant to ap­pease every man­ner of crav­ing.

To help a rookie nav­i­gate the smor­gas­bord of As­sem­bly Chef ’s Hall op­tions, the charis­matic restau­ra­teur and sales­per­son gives this pro tip: “Why don’t you get a Tromba tequila mar­garita on draft and poke around?”

Al­ways ea­ger to do our due dili­gence for the read­ers of Post City, we fol­low his ad­vice and, walk­ing past the two DJ booths, two gourmet cof­fee sta­tions and an out­post of Tokyo Smoke — whose founder Alan Gert­ner was An­to­niou’s class­mate at UCC — we get a taste of the food wizard’s plea­sure­ob­sessed vibe.

Part of the con­cept of the food hall is that the big-name chefs who run the fancy food stands ac­tu­ally ap­pear at their restau­rants. In the age of the celebrity chef, this is more novel than you might think.

And for An­to­niou, it just makes busi­ness sense. His team han­dles bussing ta­bles, elec­tric­ity, li­cens­ing and all of the an­cil­lary man­age­ment co­nun­drums that be­fud­dle restau­ra­teurs, leav­ing them to fo­cus on the food. To hear him tell it, he’s a foodie evan­ge­list, en­abling chefs to con­cen­trate solely on cook­ing while he pur­sues his mis­sion of im­prov­ing Toronto’s culi­nary land­scape.

His new shrine — sand­wiched be­tween two of his fa­ther Bob An­to­niou’s old school food haunts, Lit­tle An­thony’s and Es­tia­to­rio Vo­los, and im­por­tantly be­neath the glis­ten­ing head­quar­ters of Google Canada — won’t just chal­lenge Cana­dian palates, but Cana­dian iden­tity, as well.

“We need to stop think­ing about good things in Toronto as be­ing ‘like Sil­i­con Val­ley.’ This is Toronto, and yeah, it could ex­ist in Sil­i­con Val­ley, and it may, but that’s not our fo­cus. We’re try­ing to build an in­cu­ba­tor space right here for chefs to design and build their own restau­rants within our ecosys­tem,” says An­to­niou, a for­mer pri­vate eq­uity banker and uni­ver­sity foot­ball star, who is tall and wears a Blue Jays cap and a five o’clock shadow. He’ll be mar­ry­ing his fi­ancée in July. Per­haps no sur­prise, he was raised in the same area as As­sem­bly — he grew up in a condo at Welling­ton Street and Uni­ver­sity Av­enue.

“We’re bring­ing value back to the restau­rant busi­ness model, and I know this place is great, not just for Toronto, but com­pared to any­thing around the world, be­cause I have 17 chefs who share our sin­gu­lar de­sire: to con­cen­trate solely on the de­li­cious­ness of the food.”

To re­cruit his food co-con­spir­a­tors to As­sem­bly Chef’s Hall, An­to­niou dined out in the city on his own for a year and gained 35 pounds. (Be­fore mak­ing his se­lec­tion, he vis­ited each of his 17 new part­ners six times.)

The mix of tal­ent was im­por­tant. But equally essen­tial was a chef ’s pas­sion and drive.

He wanted true part­ners who were ready to work, in­no­vate and add to the unique hive mind. On our tour, An­to­niou in­tro­duces us to Ness Levy who man­ages Short & Sweet, a pur­veyor of hand­made baked goods. Show­ing how the restau­rants work to­gether, Ness and his team have a spin on “bot­tle ser­vice” for birth­days, in which a cake is de­liv­ered to your ta­ble and the whole As­sem­bly Chef’s Hall uni­verse comes to­gether to sing.

“It’s a good idea, and it doesn’t just help Ness. It helps ev­ery­one in the ecosys­tem be­cause guests come here for a cel­e­bra­tion that they can’t find any­where else,” says An­to­niou, who greets guests and restau­ra­teurs alike on our tour, of­ten stop­ping to sam­ple cook­ies and bites of fried chicken and snap­ping In­sta­gram-wor­thy shots of dis­plays like the out­ra­geous Bluenose Lob­ster stand, which boasts a heap­ing pile of glis­ten­ing red crus­taceans flown in from Nova Sco­tia.

“I’m not OK with the sta­tus quo, and I don’t ac­cept that things have to be a cer­tain way,” An­to­niou says. “I al­ways try and chal­lenge, and I al­ways, al­ways want to make things bet­ter.”

To that end, he says the venue will host monthly food events in which the whole space might trans­form into a theme, such as Mid­night in Paris or Full Moon Bangkok Party.

He dreams of ex­pand­ing and in­ten­tion­ally leaves space open at the front of As­sem­bly Chef’s Hall for a ro­tat­ing chef.

It’s a com­mu­nity mar­ket of which An­to­niou says, “There’s no bet­ter as­sem­blage of chefs any­where in North Amer­ica.”

To hear him tell it, it just might be true. But then again, af­ter choos­ing in­dul­gent over healthy and en­joy­ing our fresh, spicy af­ter­noon drink, we’re feel­ing fairly in­tox­i­cated by As­sem­bly Chef’s Hall and the con­fi­dence of its cre­ator.

“The beauty of the venue is that it’s so flex­i­ble,” An­to­niou says, with a smile. “The only limit is our imag­i­na­tion.”

As­sem­bly Chef ’s Hall is lo­cated at 111 Rich­mond St. W.

L–R: An­dreas An­to­niou is on a mis­sion to im­prove Toronto’s culi­nary land­scape; a taco from Colibri chef Elia Her­rera’s food hall out­post

A plat­ter from Cherry Street Bar-B-Que

A sky high burger from Love Chix

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